In a test of a new state law, a judge Thursday ordered the release of video showing a fatal police shooting of a Charlotte teen in June.
The ruling from Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell appears to be the first time the courts have approved a petition under North Carolina’s law requiring a judge’s approval to release footage from police body cameras and dashcams.
It grants public access to footage from the June 2 shooting of Rodney Rodriguez Smith on North Tryon Street near University City Boulevard.
Smith’s grandparents said they question whether officers used excessive force when they shot the 18-year-old who suffered from mental illness.
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Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say Smith shot and seriously wounded a man on a CATS bus, then fired at least one shot at police before he was fatally wounded.
Officers Michael Bell and Garret Tryon have since been cleared of criminal wrongdoing by prosecutors and are back at work.
Their attorneys argued the videos should not be released. They said the footage could inflame the public and make the officers targets for someone seeking revenge.
“Another person killed by police. That’s the narrative,” said attorney Jeremy Smith, who represents Tryon. “They could seek retribution. Officers have enough to deal with.”
But Caldwell ruled that the public has a compelling interest in the video at a time when the nation’s attention is focused on the killings of minorities at the hands of police officers.
“Isn’t the public entitled to make up its own mind?” Caldwell asked. “Does the interest of two people outweigh the interest of millions of people?”
The new law went into effect Oct. 1, days after the fatal CMPD shooting of Keith Lamont Scott sparked days of riots and protests. Activists and law enforcement experts said the department deepened resentment by initially refusing to release video before giving in to intense public pressure.
Supporters of the law say it balances citizens’ right to know with the interest of police. Opponents say the added restriction undermines transparency and public accountability.
Public radio station WFAE went to court seeking a judge order for the release of video capturing the Smith shooting. Reporter Lisa Worf argued that the public had a compelling interest in police shootings and understanding prosecutors’ decision not to pursue criminal charges against the officers.
The radio station had filed a previous petition for the release of the video, but Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson in November denied their petition, in part, because the district attorney had not yet decided whether to file charges.
This time, however, the police department and the district attorney’s office did not oppose the release of the video.
Mark Newbold, a CMPD attorney, said the need for transparency trumps other concerns.
“We feel some of the misinformation about police shootings can be cleared up,” Newbold said.
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